If you play tennis on a regular basis, you are probably well versed in the age-old treatment for a muscle sprain – rest, ice, compression and elevation. But did you know that the food you are eating could also help prevent muscle sprains, and speed up the healing process when injury does strike? Whether it’s a knee, calf, shoulder or back injury, most players have encountered injuries in one form or another. It might be a mild sprain or require surgery, but either way the body needs the right nutrients in order to recover. 

Any player’s diet should include plenty of whole-grains, vegetables, fruit and lean protein to provide a wide range of nutrients, which are vital to maintain good health, offset oxidative stress and maintain strength. A good, balanced diet will hopefully help to avoid injury.  But if you do find yourself sidelined, your diet can play a big part in your recovery. By understanding what your body is going through, you can learn what it needs to help it heal. 

A common reaction to injury is to cut back on the number of calories consumed.  After all, if you can’t train, you don’t need as much energy, right? Think again.  Studies show that as the body heals it uses more energy to aid recovery, potentially increasing energy needs by 15%, and where bone breakages are concerned there may be a potential additional 20% increase in energy demand. This can mean that the calorific requirement may be more than anticipated, so think twice before cutting back – just make sure that all your calories come from nutrient-dense foods: fruit and vegetables, whole-grains and lean protein.

There is a natural cycle of activity that takes place to help the body through the four stages of recovery – the acute phase, followed by three stages of healing – inflammatory, proliferation and remodeling. Research shows that each of these stages benefits from a specific and appropriate intake of vitamins, minerals and amino acids (protein).

During the acute phase the body responds to the injury by increasing the flow of blood to the site of injury. This brings in immune antibodies, which can start to help the healing process, removing damaged tissue. This is why we often see reddening and swelling around an injury.   This reaction quickly turns to the first stage of healing: inflammation, which can last for several days, depending on the injury.  The immune response continues and fluid continues to collect in the area. This is a perfectly normal reaction, but if not moderated by the body, can slow down the healing process.

During the inflammation stage, pay attention to your fat intake. Saturated fats – those found in processed meats such as ham, bacon, salami, pate, plus baked goods such as cakes, biscuits, croissants – can increase the inflammatory state in the body so should be avoided. Instead focus on eating oily fish, avocado, olive oil and nuts and seeds, which are rich in omega-3 and unprocessed omega-6 fatty acids and have an anti-inflammatory effect.  Adding spices into your diet can also provide anti-inflammatory compounds: turmeric, ginger, garlic and bromelain (found in pineapple) can all be positive aids.

After inflammation comes proliferation, which can last for several weeks. This is where the body starts to lay down the new tissue, collagen, to replace that damaged during the injury, whether skin, muscle or ligaments. During the proliferation stage, as well as maintaining the anti-inflammatory foods, make sure that you eat plenty of protein to help build new tissue. In order to enable the body to convert this protein into collagen you’ll need a good intake of vitamin C.  Broccoli, bell peppers, tomatoes and cabbage are all rich sources – better, in fact, than citrus fruits.  

Other nutrients closely associated with collagen repair include vitamin A and zinc. Deficiency in either can result in slow tissue recovery. Sources of vitamin A include liver, cod liver oil, green leafy vegetables, carrots, sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Zinc can be accessed from oysters, beef, liver, with small amounts in almonds, brazil nuts and pumpkin seeds.  

Finally, the remodeling phase takes over, during which the new tissue created during proliferation is reinforced by fibroblast cells to build back the strength and stability that may have been missing during the earlier stages of recovery. Having worked hard to plan these nutrients into your diet, absorbing them is essential, so avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol as these can inhibit digestion and absorption of vitamins and minerals. The human body possesses a remarkable ability to repair itself, but it needs the tools to do so. Eat the right diet, and you should be back on the court in no time.